Retired Air Force pilot is community service personified

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DeLuca welcomes Leadership Southern Maryland members to a gathering at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons. (LSM photo)

“One of the smartest decisions I ever made.”

That’s what retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mark DeLuca thinks about joining Leadership Southern Maryland (LSM), a community service organization headquartered in Leonardtown.

“I joined thinking it would be a good way to develop business contacts for our company, but it’s helped me mature and become a better, more responsible person,” said DeLuca, who flew the giant C-5A cargo plane and several other aircraft during his 21-year Air Force career. “I’ve met a lot of really good people there who have humbled and inspired me.”

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The massive C-5A Galaxy was one of several aircraft DeLuca flew during his Air Force career. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“He’s extremely dedicated,” said LSM Executive Director Helen Wernecke. “He’s said more than once it’s been a life-changing experience for him, and that comes across very strongly every time he speaks.”

Now a systems engineer for defense contractor HTii of Lexington Park, DeLuca is community service personified. Besides his LSM work, he’s deputy grand knight of the Knights of Columbus council of St. Michael’s Church in Ridge, president of the Ridge Lions Club (“We call it King Lion”) and an Air Force Academy liaison for local high-school seniors thinking of enrolling there.

In his spare time he’s training to become an Ironman and competes in triathlon events around the state.

He joined LSM in 2009, served six years on its board of directors and was elected president for 2014-2015. This year he was promoted to the leadership council, along with retired Navy Rear Adm. Bert Johnston, also a former LSM director and president.

When the organization went through some difficult times a few years ago, “Mark did what was needed,” Wernecke said. “He stood up in front of several groups of people and spoke frankly about the challenges we were facing,” she said. “I saw the Air Force officer then. I could see he’d done this sort of thing before.”

LSM’s goal is to develop leaders from St. Mary’s, Charles and Calvert counties for regional collaboration, primarily through a nine-month, tuition-based program. “We want to create a cadre of informed personnel who can work together to make things better for our area,” DeLuca said. “We’re looking for people who are deeply involved in the community.”

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“King Lion” DeLuca addresses a meeting of the Ridge Lions club. (Ridge Lions Club photo)

He’s managed to bring his employer into the organization as well. HTii now sponsors part of the LSM training program known as Defense Day, a tour of Naval Air Station Patuxent River and Webster Outlying Field. “It’s one of the ways we expose developing leaders to issues and challenges in the southern Maryland area,” he said.

His proudest achievement with the organization was helping create the LSM Legacy Fund, a permanent endowment to benefit the region. “Some of my colleagues came up with the idea,” he said, “and we worked together to get more donations into the fund and invest in a growing stock portfolio.”

Operated by the Community Foundation of Southern Maryland in Leonardtown, the fund eventually will be able to donate the interest it earns to worthy local projects. “It needs to grow more before we can use it,” he said, “but we’re hoping that in the next five or 10 years we’ll be able to do something with it.”

Despite these accomplishments, DeLuca feels his most important service work is with the St. Michael’s Knights of Columbus. “It helps men become better at their faith and as husbands and fathers,” he said.

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DeLuca crosses the finish line in a favorite leisure-time activity, a triathlon. (Ft. Ritchie Triathlon photo)

“He’s a leader in all the areas we serve in,” said Mike Thumm, chancellor of the local Knights of Columbus council. “Obviously his Air Force experience as a leader shows through.”

As vice-president of the St. Michael’s Knights, DeLuca helped acquire funding for the CareNet Crisis Pregnancy Center. The center helps unmarried women get through pregnancy and the difficult choice of raising a child as a single mother or putting it up for adoption.

A major accomplishment was acquiring an ultrasound machine to monitor developing babies’ health. “It cost $29,000,” he said, “but we were able to get support from Knights of Columbus councils around the state to buy it.”

In any organization “there are certain individuals who contribute lots of time and effort,” said Thumm. “He’s one of those who always shows up.”

DeLuca has also helped provide community medical services through the Ridge Lions club. The Lions partnered with the College of Southern Maryland nursing program to conduct a free vision-screening clinic this April for local private school students. “Public schools have their own facilities,” he noted, “so we held the clinic in a daycare center and invited private school students to attend.”

The event now takes place twice a year, and the next one is this Fall. “It’s a training opportunity for the nursing students, and the Lions provide the equipment and show them how to use it,” he said. “If vision problems turn up during the screening, students receive a letter explaining the issues to give to a doctor. If they can’t afford glasses, then we help them pay for that too.”

One of DeLuca’s most satisfying recent efforts was a joint fund-raising project between the St. Michael’s Knights and Ridge Lions to send a severely disabled student, Talea Ingmire, to a national athletic competition. The 17-year-old has arthrogryposis, which causes extreme joint stiffness.

A steely-eyed Lieut. Col. DeLuca monitors C-5A operations during his Air Force days as one of the three other pilots on the giant aircraft mans the controls. (Mark DeLuca photo)

A steely-eyed Lieut. Col. DeLuca monitors C-5A operations during his Air Force days as one of the three other pilots on the giant aircraft mans the controls. (Mark DeLuca photo)

“Her wrists are locked completely, and her knees barely bend,” he said, “but she’s still able to run in a stiff-legged fashion and even throw the discus.”

Together the Knights and Lions managed to raise $1,800, “enough to put her over the top,” he said, and help cover expenses for the National Junior Disability Championships this month.

To DeLuca, helping others with projects like these is the whole point of service organizations. “LSM is dedicated to the tri-county area, the motto of the Knights of Columbus is ‘In service to One, in service to all,’ and the Lions Club’s is ‘We serve’,” he said. “It’s what we do as organizations, and what I’ve tried to do as a person – make a meaningful difference by serving God, my family, my country and the community around me.”

(An edited version of this story appeared in the July 22, 2016 edition of The Enterprise, St. Mary’s County, Maryland.)